Tuesday 7 December 2021

Writers’ Questions: How Should I Write a Sex Scene?

Welcome back to my Writers’ Questions series where I’m answering aspiring writers’ FAQs about craft, publishing, and the emotional journey of writing a book. Today, I’m tackling the type of chapter lots of writers are most anxious to write—the sex scene. 

Is this gross? Will my parents ever read this?! Do I even have sex right??? These are just some of the questions that might be running through your mind when you reach THAT scene in your manuscript. But never fear, I have some practical pointers to make the task less daunting.

Be clear about the intention of your scene

A good starting point is to ask yourself what impact you want this particular scene to have on your readers. If you’re writing erotica, you’re definitely aiming to titillate, and this can be true of sex scenes in other genres too. But this is far from the only emotional response sex scenes can elicit. Maybe you want the scene to be romantic. Maybe instead the encounter is intended to be humorous. A sex scene can also be unsettling, sad or scary. Start with the emotional landscape you’re looking to paint, and this can direct its content and language. 

Stay laser-focused on point of view

People experience sex differently, depending on their gender, their experience level, and the “role” they’re playing in any given sex act. Personality type, the relationship they have with their partner(s), and the character’s emotional state are also all going to have a huge impact on the scene, as it will be filtered through the lens of the point of view character. This should make writing a sex scene much less scary. Don’t worry—you don’t need to capture how every sexually active person feels during sex; you just need to convey what sex feels like to this one character, at this one moment. 

Choose your heat level

Think about how we know sex has happened in a movie. Sometimes, if rarely, we see it all, genitalia included. More often, audiences get to view some nudity, kissing, and billowing bedsheets, but nothing explicit. (Think about how many actresses seem to keep their bra on in bed.) We might hear some moans or maybe they’re drowned out by crescendo-ing music. In many films, sex is even less explicit than this, replaced by visual innuendos (e.g. exploding fireworks) or post-sex scenes, like breakfast the next morning. In fiction, we do something similar. You can “fade to black,” ending a scene before sex has happened but when it’s obvious that it’s about to. You can turn down the heat by keeping your language more suggestive than clinical. And, of course, you can put it all on the table and risk upsetting more conservative readers on Goodreads. Writer, the choice is ultimately yours.

Write sex like dialogue

People don’t always talk during sex, but they often do, and there’s an even greater chance there’s conversation between characters leading up to sex. Taking cues from how you write non-sexual dialogue then is a great way to go about structuring sex scenes. I think about dialogue as having three components—what people say, their body language and physical actions during the conversation, and what the point of view character is thinking but doesn’t say. In a sex scene, the balance between speaking, doing and thinking will probably lean more towards doing than in a typical section of dialogue, but if you have a character who’s very in their own head during the act and/or characters who are into dirty talk, any of these three components could come to the fore. Look to have a mix of all three, not just action, to avoid making your scene read like a sex position instruction manual.

Get feedback

Yes, really. Especially if you’re writing an encounter outside your realm of experience e.g. from the perspective of a character of a different gender and/or sexuality and/or body type. It’s much less embarrassing for one critique partner to point out your mistakes than to find yourself mocked online and nominated for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Writers, what other strategies do you have for writing great sex (steamy or otherwise)? I’d love you to let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And check out my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which contains sex scenes between Branwell Bronte and the older woman with whom he is rumored to have had a disastrous affair…

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Great Mistake, Jonathan Lee (2021)

Andrew Haswell Green (1821-1903) is the greatest New Yorker you might never have heard of. Often referred to as the “Father of Greater New York,” this self-made city planner and lawyer was instrumental in the creation of landmarks such as Central Park, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, and the American Museum of Natural History. 

In his 2021 novel, The Great Mistake, Jonathan Lee brings us into Green’s inner world, painting a picture of a brilliant but isolated man, whose untimely murder (no spoilers here—this opens the book!) was as senseless as the time period’s suppression of his same sex desire.

Jumping around in time, we become acquainted with Green as a dignified celebrity in the bustling metropolis and as a farm boy desperate for his own father’s love. He is the shopkeeper’s apprentice, working long hours to survive, the businessman shocked by, but implicated in, the ill treatment of workers in Trinidad, and the young man enamored of his friend Samuel J. Tilden, who was born with much greater privileges. 

The novel is literary and character-driven, but two questions pull us through the pages. One: who killed Green? And two: what was the great mistake of the title? The first of these is answered clearly; the second remains a subject of debate. Was Green’s mistake uniting Manhattan and Brooklyn? Does the phrase instead refer to his murder? Or did he misstep in his personal life, perhaps by prioritizing his professional aspirations?

Lee writes good prose and there are some chapters and moments here where good becomes great. Other more philosophical passages, such as the political debate set against the backdrop of Brooklyn Bridge, are less successful.

Still, I’d recommend The Great Mistake to lovers of quieter historical fiction, to those with an interest in queer identities in the nineteenth century, and to anyone with a fondness for New York City. 

Which twenty-first-century written, nineteenth-century set, novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook and e-book now. 

Sunday 31 October 2021

The Craziest Deaths in Victorian Novels

Happy Halloween, everyone! Today’s festivities have put me in a macabre and morbid mood so for today’s blog post, I’m running through some of the best (or worst?) ways to die in a Victorian novel. If you like your fictional deaths as strange, memorable and zany as possible, you’re in for a treat. 

My Halloween costume this year

Spontaneous Combustion

Who could forget the strange demise of Mr. Krook in Charles Dickens’s masterpiece Bleak House (1852-1853)? His death is the most famous literary example of human spontaneous combustion i.e. when a person goes up in flames for no reason at all. 

Railway Accident

Victorians were terrified of newfangled train travel and, if we’re to believe the novels, for good reason! There are options here: die instantly in a crash or suffocate to death in a tunnel. Or, if you’re Isabel Vane in Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), become disfigured in a derailing before returning to your family in disguise to act as governess to the children you abandoned to run off with your dashing and dastardly love.

Baby Farm

Your odds of surviving infancy weren’t great in the nineteenth century. But they were even worse if you were divided from your mother and put in a “baby farm” i.e. cheap daycare where you were, at best, neglected and, at worst, given poisoned formula. Check out George Moore’s 1894 novel, Esther Waters, for more on this practice.

Switching Places with a Doppelgänger 

Finding someone who looks just like you = all fun and games, until they find themselves destined for the guillotine, and you take their place in a heroic act for the woman you love…according to Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), anyway.

Sibling Violence

Who hasn’t bickered with a sibling? But let’s just hope your brother isn’t Little Father Time from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), who commits a grisly murder/suicide. 


If you’re a madwoman who lives in an attic (like Bertha in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre) or a crazy old maid who wears her wedding dress every day (like Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s 1860-1861 Great Expectations), step away from the candle! 


Yes, you’ll still die. But you’ll look beautiful doing it, just like many Victorian heroines. “Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady,” Charlotte Bronte wrote in 1849. I’ll take her word for it.

What other literary deaths have I missed? Do you have a favorite strange nineteenth-century character ending? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

My nineteenth-century-set novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which includes one example from this list, is available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and e-book right now. For regular updates on my blog and writing, sign up to my monthly digital newsletter below.

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Friday 15 October 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Yellow Wife, Sadeqa Johnson (2021)

It’s hard to read historical fiction set in the American South in the nineteenth century, especially if the novel’s protagonist begins life enslaved and faces a series of horrific trials, as she struggles to win her own freedom and the freedom of her children. 

Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife (2021) doesn’t shy away from the horrors of existence on a plantation and then in a jail in Virginia, as she tells the story of the fictional Pheby Delores Brown. Pheby may be a work of Johnson’s imagination, but her experiences mirror many real histories. Her mother is an enslaved Black woman, and her father a white slave owner. Her “yellow” skin is a curse more than it’s a blessing, as she’s repeatedly objectified and abused. 

Sold as a punishment for her true love’s escape, plantation-born Pheby finds herself at the Devil’s Half Acre, a jail and trading post in Richmond, and soon draws the attention of the jail master—i.e. the “devil” himself. Selected for her looks, Pheby is in a morally difficult position. She has more creature comforts than the many enslaved people who pass through the door and some modicum of power, but her rapist “husband” still holds her life, and the lives of her increasing number of children, including her Black son, in his hands. Johnson does a good job of giving Pheby agency throughout the novel, despite the difficulties of her position, crafting a character we can root for and believe in.

The novel began for me on familiar ground—the plantation setting reminiscent of other novels I’ve reviewed here, for instance Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (2014). But the descriptions of the Richmond jail, which is based closely on historical record, were fascinating and uncovered a new chapter of American history for me. No spoilers here, but I also enjoyed the realism of the ending and the different relationships Pheby’s “white” children have with their mixed heritage—this struck the right chord and felt like the perfect note to end on. I wish Johnson had dived even more into Pheby’s relationship with her own Blackness. Has she internalized any colorism? How does she relate differently to each of her children?

Overall, this is a fast read, which manages to entertain, while dealing deftly with horrific topics and pulling us into America’s divided past. I’d recommend it. 

Which nineteenth-century set, twenty-first century written novel would you like me to review next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Leave suggestions here, on Facebook, on Instagram or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and e-book. And make sure you subscribe to my writerly newsletter below.

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Wednesday 29 September 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles (2020)

What makes the main character of a novel likable? Two key strategies are to establish early something/someone your protagonist loves and something that they want. In Paulette Jiles’s 2020 novel, Simon the Fiddler (the latest book I’m reviewing as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series), she gives us both. 

We meet Simon in Texas in 1865. He’s a talented musician, seeking to avoid conscription into the Confederate Army. Soon though his luck runs out and he finds himself embroiled in the final days of the American Civil War. The majority of the novel is set following the South’s surrender as Simon navigates the complex, and often dangerous, world of the Reconstruction period. 

What does Simon love? Music. His fiddle is the talisman for his skill but also for his emotional connection with the art form, and Jiles puts the instrument in peril from early in the book to cement our connection with her main character.

What does Simon want? Stability. He yearns to be a landowner with a wife and children, and to create the family he, as an illegitimate orphan, never had. In short, this is an American Dream story. The modesty of Simon’s wants makes him instantly relatable, and how he hard he has to work to achieve them gives us the meat of this by turns dramatic and violent, and melancholy and sensitive novel. 

Simon and the band of fellow musicians he falls in with have to grapple with the natural landscape of Texas, their lack of money and the logistical challenges of making more. They wear shirts riddled with bullet holes, wrestle with an alligator, and engage in regular drink-fueled brawls. We’re told: they always go for the fiddler. 

Despite these regular moments of high drama, I’d say the book is a slow burn, with the most plot-driven chapters clustered towards the end, as Simon seeks to rescue Irish immigrant governess Doris from her unscrupulous employer (an officer in the Union Army).

I’d recommend the book to all readers of historical fiction. There’s enough Civil War commentary here to engage readers of military historicals, but this is a novel that moves seamlessly between the battlefield, the drawing room, the tavern, and the great outdoors. I found myself rooting for Simon from the first few pages to the very end—a testament to Jiles’s prowess as a writer. 

What nineteenth-century set, twenty-first century written novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my nineteenth-century set novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available wherever books are sold, in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook. For regular updates from this blog and on my writing, subscribe to my email newsletter below.

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Sunday 19 September 2021

Writers’ Questions: What Mistakes Do Beginner Writers Make When Working on a Novel?

Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’ve been answering aspiring authors’ burning questions about writing and publishing as part of my Writers’ Questions series.

Today I’m tackling the biggest mistakes newbies make and the traps they can fall into when penning that first book (trust me, I’ve been there). This list isn’t exhaustive and it’s more focused on process than craft. Check out the rest of the series for more sentence-level insight and introductions to technical topics.

So, without further ado, let’s get into the mistakes…

Jumping the gun

You got there! You typed “The End” and the novel that’s taken you months, or even years, to write is finished. This is definitely a moment to celebrate. So treat yourself, pop a champagne cork, call up a friend. But, whatever you do, don’t immediately hit “send” and shop your manuscript to every agent and editor in the business. If you haven’t edited the novel, through several rounds of revisions, it’s not ready. If no one else (or only your parent or partner) has read it, it’s not ready. If you haven’t read it imaginary cover to imaginary cover again and again until you could almost recite the entire novel, it’s not ready. Sorry! You’ve achieved a lot, but there’s still work to be done.

Talking about your book too much

Writing doesn’t have to be a dirty secret. Plenty of authors now document their full drafting journeys via social media, and if that motivates you, I say, go for it! However, in my experience, talking in detail about the plot points of my work in progress even to just one friend is usually counterproductive. It deadens some of the urgency I feel to “tell” a story, making it harder to stay motivated, and it leaves me vulnerable to receiving feedback when I’m in a creative vs. an editing mode (i.e. not ready to hear it).

Getting stuck on just one thing

Vague, I know. But the biggest “things” I see early career writers getting stuck on include research (especially in historical fiction), world building (especially in science fiction and fantasy), and first chapters (this can happen to any of us). Are research and world building key parts of the writing process? Yes. Is it a problem when you’re so lost in them you’re not writing? Also, yes. At some point, you need to draw a line in the sand and start writing. You can “fix” details later. The same thing goes for first chapters. They’re really important, but if rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is prohibiting you from working on Chapters 2-29, you have a problem.

Being too ritualistic about writing

Drinking a glass of lemon water, meditating for 20 minutes, and doing a yoga session to unlock my creative flow, before sitting down at an antique writing desk with a mug of tea to my right and a cat on my lap, sounds lovely, but this isn’t how books get written. Books get written by writers deciding to write whenever and however they can, even if that means in less than ideal circumstances. If you’re envisioning the author profile a journalist will write about your perfect writing nook but you haven’t passed 10k words, it might be time to reassess…

Being impatient

With yourself and with the industry. If writing a book was easy, everyone would do it. You have to put in the time to hone your skills and make your novel as good as it can be. There will be many hours of work, and, once you’re ready to try to find a publisher, there will be many more hours of waiting. If you know patience isn’t your strong suit (it’s definitely not mine!), experiment with the powers of distraction. Hint: the best form of distraction is always writing another book.

So that’s what I’ve got for you today—five big mistakes to avoid when starting out on your writing journey. I hope the blog post has been helpful and that you’ll consider reading my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, if you haven’t already. I’m always open to topic ideas for my Writers’ Questions series, so please contact me via Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. And make sure you sign up to my monthly email newsletter below. 

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Tuesday 24 August 2021

Writers’ Questions: How can I beat writer’s block?

In my Writers’ Questions series, I’ve been tackling need-to-know topics about the craft and business of writing, but in today’s post it’s time to get a little more emotional. If you’re a writer you know how great it feels when you’re in the zone. The words flow. Time passes quickly. You meet your word count goals with ease. But what about when you’re just not feeling it? How can you become unblocked, so you’re not just staring at an empty page?

I’ve blogged before about motivation, including making and finding time to write, so I’m going to skip over that here and presume you have all the resources at your fingertips and the desire to write inside you. But it’s just not happening. Now what?


Maybe you’re stuck because you don’t know what happens next in your book. If so, perhaps it’s time to try plotting vs. pantsing (i.e. flying by the seat of your pants). I’ve written a full post on the pros and cons of outlining novels and how to go about this approach.

Switch formats

If you have a day job that involves staring at a computer screen (or if you’re just a twenty-first-century human with a phone!) you might not want to stare at blue light in your evenings too. So, if your head is pounding as the white document blinks at you, close that laptop and pick up old-fashioned pen and paper. You might find that it helps to spill real ink.

Try a different location

I feel most creative while sitting on the floor. Why? I’m not sure, but try working in different places and see what makes sense for you. In previous years I would have advised you to try writing in a coffee shop or on a plane, but in our current reality, perhaps it’s time to discover new and unusual writing spots at home…

Jump to a scene you’re excited about

There shouldn’t be a single scene in your novel that’s boring. If there is, why is in your book? And I’m normally a proponent of writing in a linear way. But if you’re really struggling and there’s a pivotal moment in your novel (e.g. the climax, a first kiss, a dramatic fight scene) that you can picture clearly, skip to that part to get your writing mojo back.

Move your body

Have you been hunched over a computer for hours? Days? Weeks?! Maybe it’s time to move and leave your writing alone. Inspiration often strikes me while I’m on a walk or mid-exercise class, so get your blood pumping.

Reward yourself

If all else fails, bribery is the answer. You can have your favorite food for dinner. You can watch the next episode of that binge-worthy show. But if—and only if—you get those damn words on the page.

What other strategies do you have for beating writer’s block? I’d love to hear them! Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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Friday 13 August 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister (2020)

The novels I’ve reviewed as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on books written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth, have run the gamut in terms of “historical accuracy”. Some writers were inspired by a real person’s biography, as I was in my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress. Others continued or expanded the stories of nineteenth-century fictional characters or imagined entirely original stories within historic settings. In her latest novel, The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister dreams up an all-female expedition to the Arctic in search of the lost Franklin expedition. Did this really happen? No. Does it make for an entertaining story? You bet.

Virginia Reeve is employed by Franklin’s wife, under mysterious circumstances, to lead an all-female party in search of the missing men, but only some of the women return. She finds herself on trial for the murder of one of those who followed her North. The novel progresses in a dual timeline as we learn if Virginia will face conviction and potentially punishment by death, as well as what really happened on the women’s hazardous journey.

I appreciated the novel’s great pacing and Macallister’s ability to keep the trial storyline and the flashbacks equally engaging. I also loved how many of the women were inspired by real historical figures. An all-woman team mightn’t have gone to the Arctic in the 1800s, but there were plenty of intrepid female explorers, cartographers and mountaineers, whose exploits find new life in these pages. 

Macallister also makes the brave choice to give every member of the expedition her own point of view section, though Virginia is without doubt our main character. This means we get to hear a diverse array of voices and helps us form emotional connections with what could have been an unwieldy cast.

While a protagonist withholding information from us is a personal bugbear, the revelations of the ending are well done. This is a book that will appeal to those who love courtroom drama, as much as those intrigued by a story of women battling the elements.

Which recently published, nineteenth century set novel would you like me to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

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Thursday 29 July 2021

Review: A Hazard of New Fortunes, William Dean Howells (1889)

William Dean Howells’s 1889 A Hazard of New Fortunes is the sort of nineteenth-century novel that remembers it has a plot halfway through. 

The early chapters read like a time capsule of 1880s New York City, as Bostonian Basil March and his wife Isabel search for an apartment and explore what the metropolis has to offer, following his appointment as editor of a new periodical. Howells’s satire feels humorous, rather than biting, and there’s much that a twenty-first-century inhabitant of the city will find familiar. 

By later chapters, however, the novel seems transformed into something entirely different. The cast of characters, who felt like caricatures at the book’s opening, seem drawn towards a terribly realistic tragedy, which pulls off the writerly feat of being “surprising but inevitable.” Satire evolves into social commentary that doesn’t let readers off the hook. Where would our loyalties lie in the clash of outlooks personified by the uncultured capitalist Dryfoos and the idealistic socialist Lindau? And can the “reasonable” March (and by extension the reader) find a tenable position in the middle?

Class is not the only social question to come under scrutiny. Howells gives us beautiful, young female characters who defy their conventional roles in nineteenth-century society, and the novels that depict it. Alma Leighton begins the book as a young woman playing games with a man to wound him for neglecting her, but by the end of the novel her dedication to her art over matrimony is no ruse. Margaret Vance’s love is centered on her charitable works—something her family struggles to understand. 

Howells’s commentary on race also has a modern tinge. He doesn’t shy away from depicting the casual racism of the Northern characters, who, for instance, fetishize having Black doormen, even as they try to distance themselves from the Southern characters, including one who, more than twenty years on from abolition, is still advocating for reform, not destruction, of the “institution.”

The novel A Hazard of New Fortunes most reminded me of was E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), though the former’s structural flaws mean it’s remembered more for its multiple chapters on New York real estate woes than for its insight into the human condition. If you’re a fan of nineteenth-century realism with a love for New York, you’ll enjoy Hazard as much as I did. But, if only one of these things holds true, don’t forget—this is a novel of two halves.

What nineteenth-century novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to read and review next? Let me know. You can always contact me on Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My own (nineteenth-century set) novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, paperback, e-book or audiobook, right now. And for monthly updates on my writing and my blog, sign up for my email newsletter below.

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Monday 19 July 2021

Review: John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews (2021) – Part of the John Eyre Virtual Book Tour

I’m something of a Bronte fanatic. After all, my own debut novel (Bronte’s Mistress) was inspired by a real-life scandal that rocked literature’s most famous family. So I was delighted to be asked to participate in the virtual book tour for John Eyre: A Tale of Darkness and Shadow, Mimi Matthews’s new Bronte-inspired Gothic romance. As part of the tour, 35 online influencers specializing in historical fiction, Gothic romance, and paranormal fiction are celebrating the release with interviews, spotlights, exclusive excerpts, and reviews. 

John Eyre is (as you might have guessed from its title!) a gender-swapped retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). John is a tutor working under the employ of a fascinating Mrs. Rochester at Thornfield Hall. The housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax has morphed into a butler, Mr. Fairfax. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the maniac in the attic is a hidden husband, not a secret wife. 

What might be less obvious at first glance though is that this isn’t just a take on one nineteenth-century novel, but two. Bronte’s Jane Eyre meets Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula in this fast-paced read. This is not as outlandish an idea as it might seem at first glance. Author Mimi Matthews details in her Author’s Note several passages in Bronte’s novel that borrow from vampiric imagery (e.g. [Rochester:] “She sucked the blood: she said she’d drain my heart.”). And the Gothic Yorkshire setting lends itself to violent, as well as psychological, horror. 

The structure of Matthews’s novel is more indebted to Dracula than Jane Eyre, as Mrs. Rochester’s letters and journal make up a significant portion of the narrative. While John is definitely our main character, this decision means that Mrs. Rochester is available to us in a way Bronte’s Mr. Rochester never is. Matthews’s Mrs. Rochester is still attractive and magnetic—to John and to readers—but our access to her makes her more human and less dangerous than her masculine namesake. It’s also tricky to entirely reverse the original power dynamic in a nineteenth-century setting. John is Mrs. Rochester’s subordinate by position, wealth, and class. But he is still a man, with all the privileges this entails, and he takes the lead romantically and physically at moments when I would have liked Mrs. Rochester to seize the reins. 

Matthews excels at building atmosphere and in delivering clarity at a line level even while her characters move in a fog of confusion. I delighted in the Gothic creepiness of the Milcote mists, the mute children John tutors (a distorted mirror of Jane Eyre’s talkative Adele), the casement bed (hello, Wuthering Heights!), and the role of laudanum in the plot. Obviously, this isn’t the book for those who prefer their historicals firmly rooted in reality, but if you enjoy paranormal details there are plenty to soak in here. 

One way in which John differs from Jane is in the loss of his religious faith, something which preoccupies Jane for much of the original book. This plays to the interests of modern readers, while also removing the driving force behind Jane’s flight from Thornfield, following her disastrous would-be wedding day—her desire to save her soul and her beloved’s. As a result of this change, the dĂ©nouement of the novel is action-packed, and the chapter inspired by Bronte’s most famous scene is soon followed by the climax.

John Eyre doesn’t pretend to be a serious examination of gender dynamics, as Jane Eyre often is, and questions of race are also less prominent than in other Bronte-inspired fiction (this Mr. Rochester still benefitted economically from slave labor, but there is no suggestion that Bertha’s heritage may be non-white).

I’d highly recommend John Eyre to other Bronte fans who are happy to read works that play with the sisters’ worlds. This is a book that is beyond anything else fun—fun to uninitiated readers, but even more fun if you’re familiar with its source material. 

Have you read John Eyre? What did you think of it? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. For updates on my blog, my book, and me, make sure you sign up for my monthly email newsletter below.

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Thursday 8 July 2021

Finola & Friends: All the Episodes in my Instagram Live “Tour” for the Bronte’s Mistress Paperback Release

Last month marked the release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in paperback. In celebration of the occasion, I chatted live to 27 author friends over on Instagram, about all things writing-related! The full episodes are now available at any time over on my IGTV, so check them out at your leisure.

Episode 1: Lindsey Rogers Cook My conversation with Lindsey covered the differences and similarities between journalistic and creative writing.

Episode 2: Molly Greeley Molly and I chatted about Jane Austen, the Brontes, and reading lesbian historicals during Pride Month.

Episode 3: Julie Carrick Dalton Julie taught me about climate crisis fiction.

Episode 4: Molly Gartland My second Molly G spoke to me about writing a novel inspired by a painting and later meeting her muse!

Episode 5: Barbara Conrey Barbara let me know that there’s a town named Intercourse in Pennsylvania…

Episode 6: Greer Macallister Biographical or totally fictional? Greer and I spoke about the latest #histfic trends.

Episode 7: A.H. Kim A.H. Kim and I talked about our (shared) literary agent, Danielle Egan-Miller, and Asian American fiction.

Episode 8: Carrie Callaghan Carrie and I debated just why writers love cats so much. (We’re both fully on board.)

Episode 9: Cate Simon/Catherine Siemann Cate/Catherine and I spoke about the most popular historical sub-genres—historical romance and historical mystery.

Episode 10: Lyn Liao Butler Lyn and I chatted about everything from astrology to #PitchWars.

Episode 11: Sarah Archer Sarah’s background is in screenwriting, so we spoke about writing novels vs. writing for TV.

Episode 12: Rowan Coleman/Bella Ellis Rowan/Bella and I just won’t shut up about the Bronte sisters, of course!

Episode 13: Martha Waters Martha and I talked about romance, librarians, and romances featuring librarians…

Episode 14: Alison Hammer Alison and I both have day jobs in advertising—we drew parallels between our writing and non-writing careers.

Episode 15: Natalie Jenner Jane Austen was up for discussion again, as Natalie and I talked about being inspired by the greats.

Episode 16: Michael Stewart Michael and I share a love of the Brontes AND flagrant trespassing in the name of writing research, something he decided to show, not tell, in the midst of our interview…

Episode 17: Susanne Dunlap My episode with Susanne focused on audio, from music to podcasting.

Episode 18: Ellen Birkett Morris Ellen and I geeked out on writing craft. It was great.

Episode 19: Sarah McCraw Crow Sarah and I spoke about sexism and rejection, but still managed to have a lot of fun!

Episode 20: Lainey Cameron What is women’s fiction anyway? Lainey and I debated this industry term.

Episode 21: Linda Rosen Linda and I talked about querying and large vs. small press publishing.

Episode 22: Elizabeth Blackwell Like A.H. Kim, Elizabeth is another “agency sister.” We spoke about how we signed with our agent, as well as MBTI, and the time she interviewed George R.R. Martin (??).

Episode 23: Janie Chang Janie’s family history is MUCH more interesting than mine, so we talked about finding inspiration in genealogy, as well as cats (again)…

Episode 24: Steph Mullin and Nicole Mabry How do you write with another person?! I have no idea but writing duo Steph and Nicole do. They taught me about the joys and perils of co-writing.

Episode 25: Kris Waldherr What is Gothic fiction?! Kris and I have thoughts.

Episode 26: Amanda Brainerd Amanda and I talked about fax machines, but it was fascinating stuff, I swear.

Episode 27: Eddy Boudel Tan My final guest Eddy talked with me about Book 2, queer protagonists, and travel inspiration.

I’m so grateful to all these writers for taking the time to support my release and share their wisdom. They are an interesting bunch, so watch and listen if you can! If you haven’t read Bronte’s Mistress, consider ordering the paperback, or any other format, from the retailer of your choice. And remember to stay in touch—via Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, or by signing up for my monthly email newsletter below.

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Wednesday 30 June 2021

The Historical Novel Society North America Conference 2021…in Quotes

I attended my first Historical Novel Society North America Conference in Maryland back in 2019 and wrote a detailed review about my experience. In 2021, one published book and one global pandemic later, I attended my second—this time virtually. 

My Zoom set up for the conference

On this occasion, I wasn’t a newbie, who’d just signed her first book deal, but a speaker, appearing on the “Shaking up the Brontes” panel with Michael Stewart, Syrie James, and Rowan Coleman. This time around, attendees jumped between Zoom calls and live streams, rather than racing between conference rooms. And we all posted and pinged, rather than chatting over glasses of wine. But still, one thing remained the same—we were brought together by a love of writing and reading historical fiction, and had access to a wealth of collective knowledge.

For this blog post then, I’m not going to review the conference (there’s little to say except “bravo!” to the beleaguered board and their band of trusty volunteers), or to write exhaustively about every session I attended (attendees have access to all recordings for 90 days so I still plan to listen to panels that I missed). Instead, I’m going to share a series of quotes that stood out and my thoughts on them.

“Disturb me if someone’s bleeding.”

A question that authors are often asked is how we have time to write, which is why I appreciated this quote from Sarah Woodbury. It’s what she tells her (don’t worry, older!) kids when she sits down at her keyboard. Woodbury shared her successful self-publishing journey, which requires her to be consistently productive.

“The thing that scares you most is what you’re meant to be writing next.”

Sadeqa Johnson received this advice from a friend and it’s stayed with her. At a conference of historical fiction obsessives, it was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone who turned to a historical subject (in The Yellow Wife) after first writing contemporary fiction. I liked her advice to make the braver choice when starting to work on your next idea.

“The great advantage of historical fiction is that there is already an established audience of people who are fans of your period.”

Publishing expert Jane Friedman gave this glimmer of marketing hope to the many historical fiction writers desperate to find readers for their books. She encouraged us to seek out the places where fans of our historical setting are already congregating online.

“Do characters have to be like your best friend? I think no.”

Nancy Bilyeau weighed in on character likability—something women characters are more often criticised for. One reason I love historical fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to enter the mind set of people from a different place and time with different values, so I’m in strong agreement with Bilyeau on this one. 

“They may have murdered people, but we like them.” 

Margaret George spoke about the merits of the morally ambiguous heroes we still love to root for (think Butch Cassidy, Robin Hood, or famous pirates). The majority of her examples in this vein were male historical figures, which interested me. Can our male main characters be killers, while female protagonists are expected to be best friend material?

My unimpressed conference buddy

“I don’t see it as my place to condemn.”

Lisa See has written about cultural traditions such as foot binding that might be difficult for modern audiences to understand, and she’s often asked by readers whether she wants us to come to specific conclusions on them. She sees her role as empathetic, rather than didactic, an approach that really resonated with me.

“I am happy to use real people for my own nefarious fictional ends.”

I’m surprised by how often I’m asked whether living descendants of Lydia Robinson have objected to my imagining of her life, so it was entertaining to hear Alex George talk unapologetically about borrowing from reality to make great fiction.

“It’s not a trend. It’s not a fad. It’s the way business should be run.”

This is what Denny S. Bryce had to say about the drive towards telling more diverse stories in historical fiction, and, in particular, the elevation of Black voices. Throughout the conference, she and many other writers and publishing professionals reiterated that inclusion isn’t just a conversation for 2021.

“Am I writing to explain this world to white people? I am not. I am not trying to translate.”

Leslye Penelope spoke about the intended audiences for her historical novels, and how for so long the assumed reader in this genre has been white. I loved the push to think beyond Black stories and characters to consider who we’re writing for and what cultural background we might be assuming.

“If a reader skips the sex scene they should miss part of the plot.”

Jennifer Hallock led a cozy chat on “good sex” in historical fiction. One takeaway? If your sex scenes are skippable, they aren’t doing their job. Good sex scenes aren’t just enjoyable in good fiction—they are vital to your story.

“What lies are people telling about themselves and what do those lies signify?”

I loved this question that Jeanne Mackin asks herself during the research phase. When she sees contradictions between what historical figures wrote about their own lives and other records, she asks herself what these lies and omissions could reveal about their characters.

“I hope that there’s an appetite from publishers and readers for novels about women who are totally unknown.”

One contradiction in the marketplace that was much discussed at the conference was publishing’s purported ambition to tell lesser-known stories from history, while it’s often marquee (i.e. recognisable) names that sell books. Marie Benedict expressed a desire I think many writers in the genre share—for the industry to elevate the stories of the truly unknown.

“You never hear a plumber say, ‘I just didn’t feel like plumbing today’.”

I’m not sure this statement’s entirely true (plumbers are allowed to complain too!), but I like the sentiment behind Erika Mailman’s words. Like her, I agree that writing is a job that takes perseverance, even when the going gets tough and the muse is silent.

Were you at the conference? If so, let me know what your favourite takeaways were—in the comments below, via Instagram or Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is now available in paperback, as well as hardcover, audiobook, and e-book. To stay in the loop about my books and blog posts, subscribe to my monthly email newsletter below. 

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Wednesday 23 June 2021

Writers’ Questions: What’s in a format? Hardcover, paperback, e-book and more.

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, came out in paperback yesterday (!), having been released in hardcover, e-book and audiobook in August 2020. So, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, it felt apt to talk about the different formats books can be published in, and what you need to know about them as an author. Check out the rest of the series for other publishing questions I’ve covered, on everything from finding an agent to formatting dialogue


A digital book might not be the first format you think of if I ask you to imagine “a book”, but I’m starting with this format for a reason. E-books are the cheapest type of book to produce and, for this reason, they’re a natural first choice for self-published authors as well as, nowadays, always part of the equation for traditionally published authors like me. E-books are accessible for those with eyesight issues and because of their lower price point. They also allow people to start reading right away when they order your book online. For these reasons they are particularly popular in high volume genres (think of readers who race through several romances or mysteries a day), but e-book sales are now crucial no matter what you write and for whom.


Not every book comes out in hardcover, but those that do seem to fall into four main and overlapping categories. 1: Books deemed high brow/elevated/literary by a traditional publisher. 2: Books predicated to sell a lot of copies. 3: Self-published books, where the author wanted to see their book in this format. 4: Books that were paperback for the consumer market but which had a hardcover edition for libraries. In this last instance, this is because hardcover books are more durable than paperbacks, so can withstand the wear and tear of multiple readers. Hardcovers are more expensive to produce than paperbacks and retail at a higher price point. Typically, traditionally published writers receive a slightly higher royalty on hardcovers than paperbacks.


The modern publishing industry distinguishes between two types of paperbacks—trade paperbacks, of the kind you find at bookstores, and “mass market” paperbacks. Mass market paperbacks are shorter, fatter books, printed on lower quality paper, which you might pick up at a mass grocery store. Again, not every book will have a mass market paperback edition. These are most common for bestsellers, genres with widespread appeal like romance and thrillers and authors with a huge readership.


We’re in the midst of an audio revolution, and this has affected the fiction business too. Yet, while increasingly popular, audiobooks are expensive to produce (prohibitively so for many self-published writers), and not every traditional publisher will exercise audio rights even if they purchase them. Some established writers have sought to have the audio rights to their backlist returned to them, to self-publish and ride the audio wave. Meanwhile, pay-per-minute vs. credit business models for audio are gaining popularity abroad, demonstrating that the audiobook landscape it still evolving.

So, there you have it. I hope that this quick overview has been helpful for you as you navigate the complex world of publishing. Check out the other posts in my Writers’ Questions series here and get info on my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, (now in all of these formats!), here. You can always contact me on Facebook or Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And you can stay in touch by signing up to my newsletter below.

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